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Is PD Behind Teacher Improvement? Maybe Not, Analysis Cautions

It's costly, diffuse, and often poorly implemented: Professional development has long been a source of both teacher and administrator frustration. 

Now a study from TNTP, a teacher-training and advocacy group, adds yet another troubling finding: PD doesn't seem to explain why some teachers get better at their jobs, and others don't.

In case studies of three districts, TNTP failed to find any pattern linking those teachers who improved their craft to a specific type of professional development. And that's despite those districts spending an average of $18,000 annually per teacher on classroom coaching, workshops, and other forms of support.

There is general research consensus that PD is unlikely to work unless it's sustained, school-based, and includes coaching and follow-up so teachers can fine-tune new practices. Disappointingly, several experimental studies in the late 2000s showed that even programs based on those tenets didn't always have an effect on student achievement. TNTP's conclusions generally align with those findings.

The report also underscores what other scholars have already lamented: Without better information about what teacher-development activities work under what conditions, it will be hard to force improvements in a PD marketplace estimated to be worth some $18 billion.

"We've known for a long time that a lot of PD is not actually effective at helping teachers improve their craft, but there have not been changes in this sector of the marketplace," said Heather C. Hill, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "Part of it is that we don't have good ways of tracking what works and doesn't work, so we don't point to things that work or don't work, and teachers keep signing up for the same things."

Diving Into District PD Spending

For the report, TNTP—formerly the New Teacher Project—looked at three large school districts and one charter network organization serving in total some 20,000 teachers and 400,000 students, mostly low-income.

The organization would not release the names of the districts.

To find teachers who had improved their skills, TNTP researchers analyzed teacher improvement in multiple ways: changes in observation scores, improvements in "value added" estimates based on student test scores, and even sub-scores on districts' teaching frameworks. They controlled for teacher experience, since research shows teachers generally get better over time.

Then they connected the results to surveys of those teachers on the types of professional development they engaged in, its frequency, and feelings as to its efficacy.    

The teacher surveys had response rates ranging from 26 percent to 53 percent across the districts and the charter-management organization. They were not scientific samples, though, and while the results generally lined up with districts' overall teacher demographics, TNTP could not rule out possible selection bias.

The group calculated PD spending using three methods: a conservative one that took into account just time, money, supplies, and programming; a second that also included evaluation support and the cost of teacher salaries linked to degrees; and a third, generous estimate that included performance pay and leadership development. Using those methods, the districts' spending on PD ranged from 5 to 11 percent of their fiscal 2014 budgets.

Overall, the data showed few differences in self-reported PD experiences between the teachers who improved and those who didn't in each of the three districts.

The charter management organization studied generally had teachers making stronger growth than did the three districts and spent far more on professional development—on the order of $33,000 a teacher and 15 percent of its budget in fiscal 2014. But even in that CMO's schools, the teachers who improved reported no common PD activities.

The report's conclusions are similar to those Education Week drew in a comprehensive 2010 report on the state of PD: that most professional development activities lack strong research evidence; that the activities, services, and supports are often uncoordinated and fragmented; that districts' PD spending is difficult to pin down because it includes both time and salaries in addition to programming; and that teachers find professional development well-intentioned, but often lacking in quality and relevance.

"The takeaway for us is not, 'Bad PD doesn't work.' It's that we have to start taking a much more critical look at teacher support more generally," said Daniel Weisberg, the president of TNTP. "We don't know if improving the current system is really feasible, we're further away from getting to consistent evidence than we thought we were, and ought to be testing whether there are other models of school design, teacher jobs, that have a better chance of getting kids consistently excellent instruction."

Some Outline Hopes for Better PD Research

Karen Hawley Miles, the president of Education Resource Strategies, a group that consults on school spending with districts, said her organization has found similar levels of spending on PD—between 5 and 15 percent of district budgets.

"I hope it's another opportunity to bring attention to the very huge importance of really looking at what we're putting our dollars into," she said of the report. "I don't want it to be read as we should stop doing these things: It means, spend smartly."

Hill, the Harvard professor, suggested larger districts start investing in better research methods. For instance, they could try to connect teachers' PD activities, such as time spent in mentoring or grade-level teams, to value-added results and look for patterns that seem promising. That technique has been used mostly by researchers, not districts.

And all districts should start trying to vary their PD approaches among schools, scaling up ones with initial, promising results and shuttering the initiatives that don't seem to be helping much.

Still, she said, that's a heavy lift overall.

"I'm pretty despondent about the whole sector," she said. "Regardless of the type of study, it just doesn't look like we have any purchase on what works."

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